The Los Angeles Kings may have come into their series against the Chicago Blackhawks as the underdogs, but as they've shown time and again in these playoffs, outside perspectives don't affect the way the team goes about their business.
It's that resiliency and dedication to their game plan that has put them ahead two games to one in the best-of-seven series, and they have an opportunity to grab a stranglehold on the proceedings if they can take care of business in Game 4 on Monday night.
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How can they do that against a Hawks team that will likely put up their best effort of the series? We have the answer in this edition of Three Keys to Victory.
Get Kopitar Line Away from Toews Line
In the first two games of this series, Anze Kopitar's line often found itself on the ice against the Jonathan Toews line of the Blackhawks. Chicago ended up gaining the upper hand in that matchup, with Kopitar, Dustin Brown, and Marian Gaborik largely being held in check despite the team's overall offensive explosion in the third period Game 2.
In Game 3 of the series, Darryl Sutter continued to put the Kopitar line out against the Toews line, but it still wasn't quite working. He did try to shield them at various times, with varying degrees of success, but for the most part, Sutter doesn't seem all that intent on avoiding the matchup as the series continues.
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If he wants to really put pressure on the Blackhawks in this game, Sutter is going to have to try to be smarter about when he deploys his first line. Getting them away from the Toews line and going up against the Hawks' fourth line would be an ideal scenario, but Chicago's third line isn't all that effective either. Whichever matchup Sutter can get, he has to take advantage of, because if one dynamite scoring line is good, two is even better.
Consistent Effort Has to Continue
One of the hallmarks of the Kings' game in recent weeks has been their consistent dedication to executing their game plan. Whether it's the forwards buying into the need to forecheck well in the neutral zone or the blue liners only sporadically jumping into plays, the Kings are showing measured aggression so far in the series, and it's paying dividends.
If they continue to avoid the pitfall of beating themselves, then they should be in great shape to take down this game. The Blackhawks have shown a propensity for making silly mistakes in the third period of games, with Brandon Bollig (Game 2) and Michal Rozsival (Game 3) committing dumb penalties that ultimately resulted in key Kings goals in both contests.
Continuing to take advantage of those gaffes, while avoiding making such errors themselves, has set the Kings up in the catbird seat in this series, and continuing that trend will be key to getting a big win in Game 4.
Look for More Aggression from Kane, Sharp
While the Blackhawks' top line has been effective on both ends of the ice, the team's second line has been considerably less so. Patrick Kane doesn't have a single point in the series so far, and Patrick Sharp broke a goalless drought with his late tally in the closing seconds of Game 3.
When the two teams hit the ice on Monday night, the Kings are going to have to be wary of both players. Kane has the ability to not only find open teammates with his precise passes, but he also has a habit of buying himself time and space in the offensive zone when he carries the puck across the blue line, so the Kings have to continue to apply good neutral zone pressure to him to avoid having to deal with his myriad of abilities.
As for Sharp, his tendency is to try to get open in the offensive zone on established possessions, but he too has the ability to skate straight ahead and try to make plays happen with a bull-rush mentality. In either case, the Kings have to make sure to force him out to the boards as often as possible, and be prepared for him to attempt as many shots as he can. That means shot blocks and stick checks have to be precise as well, and that kind of non-glamorous play is what's required to win hockey games at this stage of the postseason.